Anyone who has the desire to move permanently to a country thousands of miles away with a very different culture and climate, leaving all their familiar friends and family behind, must have had a very strong personal reason (or reasons) to do so. For leaving permanently behind one’s home, one’s lifelong family and friends, one’s familiar surroundings, one’s favourite foods, etc. to go to a faraway place where one has no close friend or family and where the country’s people are not easy to befriend, is one of the hardest things that any human being can do.

There have always been asylum seekers in the UK from war-torn Islamic countries like Somalia or Iraq. As the problems in their countries are inevitably linked to Western powers dabbling in their political situation from past to present, I do feel these people should be given asylum status over here since their homes have been destroyed through no fault of their’s.

But this post is not about people like that. It’s more about the Muslims who do not come here from war-torn Islamic countries, who are not here to seek asylum, but are here because they want to be here. I’ve met quite a few such people in this English city I currently live in. These Muslims are not born here and they came here to live and then came to love it so much. Or at least they say they do. They came to this English city and then want to stay here forever. They have a lot of lifestyle rules which cause them to appear and do things in an extremely unconventional way to the local population.

Some of these practices that conservative Muslims do include :

1) not listening to the radio (well not the music channels anyway, because most music, to them, is forbidden)

2) not watching TVs or most movies (because these things may have music in them, and music is forbidden)

3) covering up head to toe (an extreme interpretation of the Koran)

4) avoiding pork (explicitly banned in the Koran)

5) avoiding alcohol (explicitly banned in the Koran), and that even includes any baked goods which have vanilla essence as one of it’s ingredients, because vanilla essence has alcohol in it, albeit a minute amount

6) not sending their daughters to any dance or gym classes (because of point number 3 above). They are worried about their daughter exposing too much flesh in leotards and having to dance with male students, have male teachers, or having to eventually perform, wearing leotards, in front of an audience which may have males in it.

Oftentimes, if their young daughters expressed an interest in these activities, they would try to rationalize why this is not a good idea and thus dissuade their daughters from doing so.

Or they might try to go ahead sending their interested daughters to a dance or gym class, only if the instructors will allow their daughters to do all their dance or gym work in long flowing robes and head covering to cover up their daughters’ hair and body shape, and only if the instructor is female, the classmates are all female, and when they do perform, the audience is entirely female.

As you can imagine, these sorts of conditions will cause a lot of logistical headaches for any dance school in the West, so many of these conservative Muslim parents either don’t bother sending their daughters to such lessons (even if their daughters expressed an interest in them), or their requests are turned down by the dance school in question.

7) Beach conundrum. Because of point 3 above, such Muslims simply cannot relax when it comes to going to public beaches and sunbathing in regular swimwear. So if any of their non-Muslim friends are planning to hang out at the beach, and invited them to join in, they either turn it down, or if they do decide to join in, they will go to the beach all covered up, which not only looks (and feels) hot and uncomfortable, it makes them stick out like sore thumbs on the beach. If they do decide to get in the water, the sight of it provides some light amusing entertainment for any non-Muslim onlookers on the beach.

Although my list may not be exhaustive, it’s obvious just how different their conservative Muslim practices are from the English population. Very rarely do the non-Muslim local population admire or support these practices. The English are not very upfront typically (unless drunk) so they often would just not say anything to a conservative Muslim about what they really think about these practices. They will live and let live, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the local population’s freedom to continue doing what they do, but in fact many of them think these conservative Muslim practices are a load of fluff and very silly.

I really can’t see how they’ll ever manage to fit in well with the existing culture here, even though most of these Muslims are law-abiding, peaceful folk and many of them are really nice and warm – warmer than say, the local English population, sometimes. Islamic culture is so different, even from say, Han Chinese culture, French culture, Spanish culture, Caribbean or non-Islamic African culture. These are some of the various different ethnic groups I have encountered over the years in England.

Although I’ve never myself witnessed any incidents whereby a woman who is outwardly Muslim in appearance was at the receiving end of abuse, I often hear very racist remarks about Muslims from the locals.

I hear about assaults (verbal and/or physical) happening to Muslim women wearing the hijab walking around some parts of this city, either directly from these women themselves or from a friend of theirs. I read about assaults on Muslim girls reported in the local news.

Conservative Muslims here have said that they’d rather live in certain areas – well-known black-and-brown-skinned enclaves with high levels of poverty – simply because those are the only places in the whole of this city where they feel they can live safely with less risk of assault and be accepted for who they are. They aren’t even very happy staying in these places because of the high crime, but they bear with it, because whenever they tried moving to better areas – 95+% white population areas – they’d experience hostility from their neighbours. I was told some of them didn’t even have to try living in these white areas for long – the moment they stepped out of their car to view the house with the agent, they were met with cold, unsmiling, prolonged stares from any locals that were on the streets at the time. As if to say “What are you doing here? You’re not welcome.”

In my experience, London is the only place in the UK where hijabis and “normal” people mix everyday without too much prejudice. It’s the only place where doctors and teachers are in institutions everywhere with their hair covered up and no one – seriously no one – bats an eyelid or wags a tongue. I love London for it’s multiculturalism and acceptance of difference cultures, but the rest of England seems pretty resistant to change. “England for the English” is what I think sums up their mentality. Many English people even discriminate against fellow English people for not being from the same town as their’s, so what hope is there for someone who is not only from this town originally, but is not white?

I know a different kind of Muslim. The kind I encountered in Singapore. The secular kind, who would go clubbing, partying, drink alcohol, smoke ciggies, sunbathe in bikinis on public beaches, are into contemporary culture and music, and casual sex. Nothing separates them from the non-Muslims apart from the fact that they don’t eat pork and they fast during Ramadan and celebrate Eid every year, and they still consider themselves Muslim. They just feel that the conservative Muslim interpretation is wrong.

These people are the sort of Muslims who would find it easier to fit in with English culture. Some of them even think the ultra-conservative Muslims in England deserve any abuse they receive related to their lifestyles, simply because they are asking for trouble by choosing to live in such a different manner from the secular English society. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. This is what they believe, to a big extent.

It is human nature after all to be tribal, and external appearances and practices are the markers of tribes. If they already do not naturally look similar to the indigenous population, then similarity has to be found elsewhere in order to build a relationship. If they do not have any similar hobbies then it makes it much more difficult to build a relationship.

The problem is that popular British culture embraces drinking (of alcohol – and copious amounts to boot), dancing (with the opposite sex as well), dressing up in glamorous, stylish outfits (most of the time, these would be considered far too revealing or seductive for a conservative Muslim woman to embrace), casual non-permanent intimate relationships with the opposite sex, beach holidays sunning themselves in bikinis, swearing (don’t worry, I swear too, so I’m not saying this is bad!) and flirtatiousness… but conservative Muslims abhor all of the above. Once again, these differences make it even harder for conservative Muslims to find common ground with local English people.

The non-conservative Muslim women I’ve seen however, do tend to mix well with local English people. There is something about the religion itself, or maybe the Islamic culture in which these women were raised in, that makes them into fun, witty, kind and very likeable people, with good social skills thrown into the mix.

I do agree that Islam provided women with more Women’s Rights than Christianity ever did, when it was first established. Women were allowed the freedom to divorce their husbands; widows were allowed to remarry; women were allowed to keep their own money separate from their husbands and spend it as they wish; women were completely absolved of the duty of providing money for household expenses – that was solely the responsibility of the males; women did not have to do housework if they didn’t want to; and female slaves have to be paid a full dowry if a man wanted to marry them (this was in direct contrast to how Christians treated slaves back then). Also, the Prophet Muhammed actually encouraged women to socialize and be an active member of society, and Islam advocated the pursuit of education in all of it’s followers.

I think Islam, if “done right”, can produce some quite wonderful people. Not being biased at all, because I can say that for any other religion like Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism for instance. But I make this point especially, because so often I see ignorant people painting a different picture of Muslims, and it is just not true of the many I’ve met. I’m sure there are bad exceptions as in every other religion, but I have met more good ones than bad, so to speak, so coming from me, Muslims are really not bad people.

Islamophobia has grown so much in the past few years. Perhaps the only way to move forward constructively is to have a certain amount of give and take. Knowing how xenophobic and provincial-minded many English people can be,  maybe only the less conservative type of Muslim can convince the non-Muslims to accept Islam as a non-threatening religion.  All it matters is for there to be a way that people can connect with one another and revel in humanity. Spending time together, doing things in their free time that they all really enjoy.